Nykesha Nolan, head coach: We were a couple weeks into school. I was doing the whole first-year teacher thing, getting my feet under me. Taught P.E., taught Health, it was all going pretty good. But, you know, as fun as teaching was, I was excited to start coaching. That’s a lot of the reason I became a teacher; so I could coach.
I’d spent that whole summer trying to learn soccer. Coaching basketball? Softball? That was gonna be easy. I could run a basketball practice in my sleep. But soccer? What’s a soccer practice even look like? I didn’t know. What drills do you run? Do you scrimmage? Are there plays? Formations? I had to learn all that. I spent the whole summer learning. Getting ready.
When we finally had our first day of practice, I think I was more excited than the kids. A little nervous, sure, but mostly excited.
Susan Douglas, right winger: I was so glad when practice started up again. Soccer was my great escape back then. I’d been playing pickup soccer over the summer. There was a park near my grandma’s house where I could get a game. Mostly adults. Mostly men. Latino, most of them. It was pretty weird, I’ll admit, this little white girl running around with a bunch of fat, middle-aged Mexican guys, but I didn’t care. I needed it. Especially that summer. That was a tough, tough summer.
Living with my grandma, that was normal. I’d been living with her a couple years, ever since Mom disappeared. She’d gotten back on the meth, disappeared. My dad... I didn’t really have a dad. Never did. So Grandma, she was my family. That was my home. Not the best situation, but still, it was something.
And then, that summer – June, I think – the cops came by to tell us they’d found Mom’s body. Some flop house a couple towns away. There was no funeral. She’d already been dead a few days when they found her.
You’d think something like that wouldn’t have affected me too much, since she’d already been gone for so long, since she’d already been out of my life. But it did affect me. More than I expected. I guess having your mom die affects everyone, no matter the situation. I don’t know.
Anyway, that’s what I was dealing with that summer. And playing soccer in the park was the only time I felt halfway decent. I could just forget about life for awhile. So when school started, when practice started again, I was thrilled.
I didn’t talk about any of this, so don’t be surprised if the other girls don’t know. Coach knew. The school knew. They kind of had to know, I guess. For legal reasons. But the team didn’t. That was kind of my big thing back then; keeping it secret. Pretending to be normal.
It was lonely. You stay quiet, you keep secrets, you’ve got all this stuff going on in your life, and you can’t talk about it with anyone. Very lonely.
But soccer? That was the best part of my life. The only good part, really.
Martha Sullivan, forward: Oh, yeah, I was super-excited for practice to start. I’d been running all summer, keeping myself in shape. I felt good. Felt like I was going to impress.
We were all excited to meet this new coach. Coach Nolan. Would she be any good? She was my Health teacher, so I already knew her. Liked her, too. But could she coach? No one knew. It made the start of practice even more exciting.
Clementine Thiamale, central defensive midfielder: I hadn’t even met Coach yet, so when I showed up for that first day of practice, it was fun, wondering what she would be like.
It wasn’t good.
That first practice, it was kind of a disaster, to be honest.
Maria Solana, central attacking midfielder: I could not wait for practice to start. I was wondering, How do they do practices in America? Will it be different? I was trying to be very open-minded.
On the practice field, we were all in this big circle, and Coach Nolan was talking. I was staying very close to the Latina girls, so they could translate for me. Coach Nolan would say something, one of the girls would whisper to me what she said. Coach Nolan would say something else, they would whisper it. And then it just kept going and going. She was talking, introducing herself, that sort of thing... and then she just kept talking and talking, and we were just standing there and standing there and I was thinking, Are we ever going to play? Is this how they do it here? You just talk about soccer? You never play?
Destinee Jones, left winger: God, that first day. She just wouldn’t shut up! [laughs] How long did we stand in that friggin’ circle? Like, 45 minutes? [laughs] I’m not joking, it was forever!
It was her first year coaching, right? And I guess she was nervous or something, so she just kept talking and talking, on and on and on. “Here’s what I think about soccer. Here’s how we’re gonna play. Here’s what I expect from you.” We’re standing there with our cleats on, the sun beating down on us, this new lady droning on and on, and I sneak a peek at my watch and I’m like Jeez O’Pete, practice time’s almost over! Are we ever gonna play? [laughs]
I think eventually we did some drills, but they were super, super simple. Like, 3rd grader drills. Just pee wee level stuff. We were all looking at each other, shaking our heads. I think someone – maybe Martha Sullivan – we passed each other doing this stupid 3rd grader drill and she was like, “Is this for real?” She said it really quiet. And I was like, “I don’t know, man. I don’t know.”
This new lady, I knew it was her first year, so I wanted to be supportive, give her the benefit of the doubt and all that, but that first practice... it was demoralizing. We did that stupid drill for like five minutes or something, all of us rolling our eyes at each other, and then she’s blowing her whistle, calling us all in.
She’s like, “Okay, um, well, that’s all we’ve got time for.” And you could see in her eyes that she was embarrassed. Like, she knew she’d blown it. She’d blown her first practice. And I wasn’t sure whether to feel bad for her, since she was new, or to be angry, since she was no better than the dope who’d coached us the year before. And I don’t even remember his name. [laughs]
Afterward, we were all in the locker room, changing and stuff, and everyone was like, “What the hell? Is this what we’ve got to look forward to this year?” We were being all quiet about it, since, you know, she might have been right around the corner listening or something, but still, we weren’t a happy crew. We were all like, Welp, same ol’, same ol’ for West Sycamore. Another year going 7-7.
Though, to be honest, at that point, seven wins seemed like a stretch. If we were gonna spend every practice standing in a circle, then doing some stupid pee wee drills, hell, we might not win a single game.
Nykesha Nolan, head coach: That was a tough night, lemme tell ya. I was a mess.
I was just so angry with myself, you know? So angry. I spent the whole summer thinking what a great coach I was going to be, so cocky, so sure I was going to kick ass, and then what happens? I go out on the first day and lay an egg. Completely blow it. I was devastated.
I actually called my college coach. My basketball coach, Katie Gillman. Called her that night, told her the whole story, told her how bad I’d screwed it up. Told her how the girls had been rolling their eyes, how they’d lost faith in me, how I wouldn’t be able to win them back. I don’t think I cried or anything, but I was definitely a mess. All that confidence I’d had? Completely gone.
She talked me off the ledge, though. Told me it wasn’t over, that I hadn’t lost the team forever. She was like, “It’s not a sprint, Nykesha. It’s a marathon. And you haven’t even gone a quarter mile. This is the furthest thing from over.”
We started talking about drills. Stuff I’d learned over the summer. Things I’d planned to do but hadn’t. Coach Gillman, she wasn’t a soccer coach, obviously, but it didn’t matter. She knew how to run a practice. She knew how to lead a team.
I’d thought I knew how to do that stuff, but apparently not, right?
So she just talked about really basic stuff. First do this, then do this. She actually made me pull out a piece of paper and write it all down. One, start with this. Do it for five minutes, tops. Two, do this. How long on that? How long on the next thing? She had me write down a schedule for the entire practice.
It was incredibly helpful. By the time I hung up with her – I’m not sure how long we talked. Maybe an hour, maybe more – by the time we hung up, I was almost halfway optimistic. I was like, Okay, tomorrow’s gonna be better. I can do this. I can win them back. It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon.
But I’ll be honest, going out there that second day, it was tough. Almost tougher than the first day. I won’t lie, I was nervous as hell. But I had that schedule in my hand. I was prepared. It had to go better. It had to.
Clementine Thiamale, central defensive midfielder: The next day, Michelle and I were walking together out to the practice field. We were very nervous, wondering if it would be bad again. She was probably more discouraged than me. “Do I even want to be on the team?” she said. “If it’s like that again? I’m not sure I do.”
I was trying to be more positive, but it was tough. The whole team, we were very nervous going into that second practice. Very nervous.
But it was totally different. Coach Nolan, she was like a completely different person.
From the moment we got to the practice field, she had us moving. Blowing her whistle, yelling out orders, looking at her watch. “Go hard! Go hard!” That’s the kind of thing she was yelling. “Keep it moving! Two minutes left! One minute left! Go hard!”
It was wonderful. So wonderful. And I wasn’t the only one. We were all looking at each other with big eyes, big smiles.
“Next drill! Keep moving! Atta girl!” That was one of her favorite things to say. “Atta girl!” [laughs] I didn’t even know what it meant at first. I understood girl, of course, but atta? I was asking the other girls, “What is atta? Is that a word?” [laughs]
So, yes, that second practice, everything turned around. Instead of wondering if this was going to be the worst year ever, instead of Michelle telling me she wasn’t sure she wanted to be on the team anymore, suddenly we’re all smiling and excited and thinking maybe this will be a good year after all, you know? It was wonderful.
Martha Sullivan, forward: God, you have no idea how glad I was. Because I was thinking about getting a scholarship, right? Score some goals, impress some colleges, get offered a scholarship? But you need, like, a functioning team to do that. With a competent coach. And practices where you actually practice.
So after that disaster of a first practice, I was like, U.S. Army, here I come! Can’t wait to start shooting those guns or... shooting those tanks or whatever. Whatever Army people do.
Then, second day of practice comes, and everything changes. Suddenly we’re a real soccer team with a real coach. And Coach Nolan, she was great from then on. That first day, that was the outlier. The lady who showed up the second day, that was the real Coach Nolan, the coach we had with us the rest of the year. Organized, energetic, fun. I grew to really like her. It was fun having a young coach who was excited and full of energy and pushing us to work hard.
As far as the rest of the team goes, it was a lot of the same girls as the year before. A few new ones. [laughs] Including one you might have heard of. Maria Solana? [laughs]
Susan Douglas, right winger: People ask me about her. We’ll be watching the World Cup and Maria’s on the TV, kicking ass, and my friends will be like, You played with her? Seriously? What was she like? Was she awesome?
I’ll lie and pretend we were best friends. “Oh, yeah, BFFs.” [laughs] “Super-close.”
That second day of practice – the first day we actually did anything – that’s when we finally got to see Maria do her thing. That’s when everyone figured out, Whoa, this new girl’s really good.
Destinee Jones, left winger: I’d seen her the first day. In the locker room, getting ready. She didn’t look like anything special. Just your average girl. Average height, average weight. Nothing special at all.
She didn’t speak English, really, so I asked this girl Yoreli about her. [Yoreli Ospina, the team’s right fullback] Yoreli was like, “Oh, her name’s Maria. She just moved here.” I probably asked if she was Mexican or something and Yoreli was like, “No, she’s Colombian.”
And that was pretty much that. Some new girl from Colombia? Big deal.
But then that second day, when we finally started practicing for real, I was like, Oh, hell. Maybe this is a big deal.
Clementine Thiamale, central defensive midfielder: Maria’s really famous now, of course, but ten years ago, she was nobody. Just another girl going out for the soccer team. I didn’t know her at all. She was an immigrant, just like me the year before, so you would think we would know about each other, but we didn’t. She lived in a different neighborhood, she spoke Spanish. There were lots of reasons we didn’t know each other. But the first time we played together, none of that mattered. We started playing soccer, and it was so beautiful. She was a beautiful, beautiful player, even back then. All the things she does now, she did back then. Maybe they weren’t as perfect as they are now, they weren’t as polished, but it was all there. The skill was there. The beauty. We could all see it.
Maria Solana, central attacking midfielder: That first week of practice was very mixed for me. No, I guess what I really mean is, those first few weeks of school were mixed.
I told you that my family, we were taking English lessons. My parents, they really wanted us to be Americans. They talked about it all the time, about how if we worked hard, America would accept us. “America was built by immigrants,” they would tell me and my sisters. “People just like us.”
And then, in those first few weeks, we had a few people say some very ugly things to us. “Go back to Mexico. Quit stealing our jobs.” Things like that. They would say it in English, so we didn’t always understand it right away, but someone would translate it for us later. It was very upsetting.
It even happened to me at school. It was at this big meeting in the basketball gym. The whole school was there, all of us sitting in the stands. I was with some Latina girls that I was making friends with. And this American girl, too, I remember now. Well, I guess all the girls were American, but she was the only white girl sitting with us. Anyway, we were all there in the stands together and everyone was pressed in tight, the whole school, waiting for someone to talk. The principal, maybe. I don’t remember what it was about.
There was this boy next to me. He was white. Very big. He looked at me and I smiled at him, trying to be nice, and he said some things to me in English. I didn’t understand much of it, but it made the girls I was with very angry. All of them. The Latina girls, the white girl I told you about, they all got very angry and were yelling at him. He didn’t seem to care.
I found out later – they wouldn’t tell me everything he said – but it was something along the lines of, “Did you sneak over the border? Do you even speak English?” Things like that. Even without knowing the words, I could tell it was bad. I could see how he hated me. My friends, they defended me, of course, and that helped. Still, things like that, plus some other things that happened, things that happened to my parents, it was all very discouraging. It made me wonder if my parents were right to bring us from Colombia. Maybe America wouldn’t accept us. Maybe we had made a mistake.
So that was in my mind a lot those first few weeks. Feeling very unsure.
Maybe that’s why the soccer team became so important to me. Because that’s where I felt like I most belonged. The girls, they accepted me. The white girls, the black girls, the Latina girls, everyone. They liked me. We were a big family. And I needed that.
Coach Nolan, she had that very bad first day of practice, but she turned out to be a wonderful coach. I liked her a lot, both as a coach and as a person.
Actually, I remember being very nervous at first. I thought Coach was frustrated by having to get the girls to translate for me. I remember asking them, “Is she mad at me?” and they were like, “No, no, you’re fine, keep playing.”
Destinee – you know Destinee Jones, right? – Destinee actually started to make a joke of it. [laughs] A running joke, I think it’s called. She would accuse the Latina girls of telling me the wrong thing. Telling me silly things, just to be funny. You know, telling me to pick my nose or something. [laughs] “Stop telling her to pick her nose! How dare you!” [laughs] Destinee was so funny. I liked her very much.
I don’t know if you’ve ever been in a situation like that, but it’s funny when someone’s telling jokes in a different language, because you know they’re being funny, you just don’t know what they’re saying. And all around you, the whole team is laughing, and you can tell they’re not laughing at you, they’re just laughing. And because they’re all laughing and having fun, you start laughing, too. You just have no idea what you’re laughing at, because it’s all in English. In the end, though, you don’t really care. It just feels good to be laughing and feeling like you’re surrounded by friends. Destinee was good at that. She was good at making us feel like a big group of friends. A family, really.
I needed that. There were a lot of difficult things that year, a lot of times I wondered if I could ever become an American. But never with the team. The soccer team, that was where I always felt I belonged.
Destinee Jones, left winger: Damnation, could that little girl play some soccer. Seriously. She comes in, I think she was a junior, brand new to America, spoke pretty much zero English, and damn if she didn’t just kick everyone’s ass, right from day one.
Funny thing is, at first, the soccer was kind of ugly. She was playing beautifully, but the rest of the team, me included, we weren’t at her level at all. So it took us a few days to kind of... get in sync, I guess. Like, if our first real practice was on Tuesday, Maria was out there kicking ass and the rest of us were just kind of watching her with our mouths hanging open, like, Dude, this chick is amazing. That kind of thing. We were actually saying that to each other. But it wasn’t until Thursday or Friday that we got over it, pulled our big mouths closed, and started figuring out how to play with her.
And when that happened, when we all started working together, oh, hell fire, it was nice. It was honestly the first time I’d ever been like, Oh, this is why they call it the beautiful game. When we all started figuring each other out, started working together like we could, it really was beautiful. I’d liked soccer up until then, but that was the first year I loved it.
Martha Sullivan, forward: At a certain point during those first couple weeks, I started thinking, Could we actually be good this year?
I’m not sure what day it was... third day? Fourth? It was toward the end of practice, we’d been doing drills and stuff, and Coach finally let us play a quick scrimmage. I’ll never forget it. 11v11. Game to three. First team to score three goals wins.
You figure three goals should take awhile, right? Nope. Maria scored twice in, like, 90 seconds, then fed someone else for the third goal right after that. It was insane. She was just head and shoulders above everyone else.
I wasn’t on her team for that scrimmage, but it didn’t matter. I remember being super-excited, thinking, Oh, wow, we are gonna be good. This new girl, she’s gonna crush teams.
But then I started to get a little nervous, you know? I was thinking, Am I good enough? Am I going to let her down?
It’s funny, looking back on it. She’s this brand new girl, doesn’t know anyone, doesn’t speak English, but I’m the one trying not to let her down.
Nykesha Nolan, head coach: I’m not sure when I figured out how good we were. Not immediately. Remember, I was still figuring out soccer myself. If it had been basketball or softball, I would have been totally comfortable. I would’ve seen it all right away. But that year, soccer was still new, so I was kind of learning on the fly.
Obviously the most significant player was Maria Solana. She was that team, plain and simple. Running things from the middle of the field, controlling the game, making the passes. What did she have that year, 17 goals, 20 assists? Something ridiculous like that. And that’s in 13 games, not 14, because she missed that one game. Won state player of the year in a landslide. It may have been unanimous, I can’t remember. It should’ve been.
Our wingers were good. Destinee Jones on the left, Susan Douglas on the right. Destinee played her tail off. Just non-stop effort, offense and defense, the whole game. Good kid. Played hard, always joking around, good kid.
Susan Douglas, over on the other wing... Susan had a hard life. She was going through a lot of stuff that year. I’m not going to tell you about it. Maybe she will. Let’s just say she kept a lot of stuff to herself. As a player, though? Very good. Great foot skills. Could dribble like no one’s business. Probably the second-best passer on the team, after Maria. I could’ve used a bit more aggressiveness from her, but talent-wise, she was excellent.
We had a couple strikers. Daniela DeLeon, she was pretty good, but the one who really took off that year was Martha Sullivan. Little waterbug of a girl. Tiny. Maybe five feet tall, a hundred pounds soaking wet. I remember, at first, thinking she’d just get run over out there, but she was so damn quick, so damn shifty. Constantly moving. Scored a lot of goals for us that year.
We were an offensive team, but if there was one defensive player to mention, it’s Clementine Thiamale. Short girl, big smile, tough as nails. Super-popular with the rest of the team. Everyone loved Clementine. She’d set up right in front of the back line and put out a lot of fires for us. Almost a third center back, really. Only short.
What was it Destinee used to say? She had this little Clementine chant she’d sometimes do in practice. Clem would knock someone down, steal the ball, and Destinee would start chanting, “She’s short! She’s hard! She’s got a yellow card! She’s Clem! She’s Clem! She’s Clemmmmmmmmmmm!” Something like that. It was funny. Like I said, everyone loved Clementine. Great kid.
Destinee Jones, left winger: Lemme tell you about this one play, and I know it sounds stupid that I would remember one play from this one practice way back in high school, but seriously, this was when I fell in love with soccer.
It was a scrimmage. 11v11. It was probably Monday or Tuesday of that second week. Coach hadn’t really figured out her starters, so we’re all mixed together. I was on Maria’s team. So was Martha Sullivan. Clementine was on the other team, playing D.
By this point, I think we’d all figured out, Oh, man, this year, it ain’t like last year. We could actually be good. And that realization changed everything. The practices got serious. Players were really getting after it. Girls were really sweating, trying to keep up with Maria. I was no different. I was out there like, Don’t let her down. She’s gonna slip you a pass. Don’t mess it up. It was crazy. And awesome. It was all the things.
So we’re having this scrimmage and I’m on Maria’s team, which means we’re winning. But Clementine’s on the other team, which means their defense isn’t gonna go down without a fight, right? Clem’s out there banging, shutting down attacks, knocking people on their butts. You know, Clem stuff.
Anyway, I’ve got the ball. I’m on the left and Maria’s in the middle. Clementine’s there, too, kind of lurking, so I know if I pass it to Maria, Clem’s gonna shut her down. Try to, at least. But earlier that day – I probably should have started the story with this – earlier that day, we’d been working on the give-and-go. You know, pass it to someone, immediately run to some open space, and get the ball passed back to you. Basic stuff, sure, but remember, this is high school. You work on the basics. Some of those things, you’re still figuring out. Anyway, Maria, she’d been super helpful with all that. Almost like a second coach. She had one of the Latina girls translating for her – Yoreli or Daniela or someone – and she and I had really nailed the whole give-and-go thing.
Okay, back to the scrimmage. I’m on the left, coming down the side, and I’m like, You know what, let’s do this. So as soon as my defender comes up on me, I slip Maria the pass and sprint for the end line. Well, no surprise, she one-times it back to me and I’ve got the ball in acres of empty space.
Okay, so great story, right? It gets better.
I start cutting in toward goal, totally free, and Clementine sees me. She’s like, Oh, hell, I better put a stop to this, because, you know, that’s what Clem did. But just as she’s coming up on me, ready to blow me up, I see little Martha Sullivan sitting there in the box and I’m like, Why not? Let’s try it again.
So I slip Martha the ball, keep running, and sure enough, just as the defense is collapsing on her, she taps the ball back to me, I’ve got a full head of steam, and I one-time it straight into the back of the net.
Oh, Lord have mercy, did I scream. I was jumping up and down, grabbing Martha and Maria and, hell, I would’ve grabbed Clementine if she’d been close enough. I was just so happy.
This sounds dumb, doesn’t it? Some stupid little give-and-go in a stupid little scrimmage ten years ago. But, honestly, that play right there, that’s when I fell in love with soccer. That’s when I figured it all out. I was like, Oh, I get it. Soccer’s beautiful. Soccer’s fun. Soccer makes sense.
That switch didn’t get flipped until I was a senior in high school, and it probably never would have been flipped without Maria Solana and Nykesha Nolan, but whatever. It happened, that’s all that matters.
By the end of those two weeks of preseason, I think everyone on the team knew, We ain’t going 7-7 again. Everything’s changed.